Mar 25, 2007
By: Alvaro Fernandez
There has been an interesting discussion about the issues related to the aging of the legal profession. Stephanie introduced us to the article “the Graying Bar: let’s not forget the ethics” by David Giacalone.
In short: statistics about the increasing ratio of lawyers over 70 in active practice, on the one hand, and the general incidence of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, on the other, lead David to point out an increasing likelihood that some lawyers may be practicing in less than ideal conditions for their clients, beyond a reasonable “brain age”. The question then becomes: who and how can solve this problem, which is only going to grow given demographic trends?.
We are not legal experts, but would like to inform the debate by offering 10 considerations on healthy aging and job performance from a neuropsychological point of view, that apply to all occupations:
1– We should talk more about change than about decline, as Sharon Begley wrote recently in her great article on The Upside of Aging — WSJ.com (subscription required).
We discussed some of these effects with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, who wrote his great book The Wisdom Paradox precisely on this point, at The Executive Brain and How our Minds Can Grow Stronger.
2– Some skills improve as we age: In our “Exercising Our Brains” Classes, we typically explain how some areas typically improve as we age, such as self-regulation, emotional functioning and Wisdom (which means moving from Problem solving to Pattern recognition). As a lawyer accumulates more cases under his/ her belt, he or she develops an automatic “intuition” for solutions and strategies. As long as the environment doesn’t change too rapidly, this growing wisdom is very valuable.
3– …whereas, yes, others typically decline: effortful problem-solving for novel situations, processing speed, working memory, attention and mental imagery. In other words, the capacity to learn and adapt to new environments.
4– Now, there is a key difference between not remembering where I put my car keys today…which happens to all when we are too absorbed in something else and is not by itself a big deal…and not remembering why I need keys to open my car. Sometimes we tend to worry too much.
5– Studies have shown a tremendous variability in how well people age and how, to a large extent, our actions influence the rate of improvement and/ or decline. Our awareness that “it’s not all doom and gloom” and that there’s much we can do is important. You may want to learn more with our Exercise Your Brain DVD. You can also learn more on the Successful Aging of the Healthy Brain: a beautiful essay by Marian Diamond on how to keep our brains and minds active and fit throughout our lives.
6– If we want to maximize our chances of healthy aging, we should focus on 4 main “brain health” pillars: mental stimulation, physical exercise, stress management and a balanced diet. And the earlier the better to build a Cognitive Reserve. More info at The Dana Guide to Brain Health book review.
7– In terms of mental stimulation, we must ensure we engage with activities that provide us novelty, variety and constant challenge to exercise and cross-train our “mental muscles” (cognitive and emotional skills). This is our best “brain food”.
8– Computer-based brain exercise programs are great vehicles or tools to help us with our stress management (here) and mental stimulation (here) needs, as compliments to other activities in our daily lives. This is why you are reading more about the Brain Fitness movement these days, grounded on the research behind adult neuroplasticity (Brain Fitness Glossary). And, of course, why we launched our Brain Fitness Center.
9– Retirement?: baby boomers (and many healthy adults over 62!) want to remain active and mentally stimulated beyond arbitrary retirement ages. Given demographic trends, this will create a large group of people working in the 60s, 70s, 80s… and society at large will have to adapt its education, health and employment policies to benefit from this trend.
10– With a challenge being that, by definition, and going back to the legal profession discussion, a person with Alzheimer’s is not aware of his or her condition. One of the affected areas are the frontal lobes and our so-called executive functions, such as the ability to self-monitor oneself. That being the case, maybe legal firms and trade associations will need to set up periodic and external neuropsychological assessments, similar to the concept of having to pass driving tests, to ensure that people in active practice possess the minimum abilities required to perform their duties (some of those abilities will be general, and some specific for each occupation).
David-thanks for starting a needed discussion.